by Aldea Donder
Originally Published 9/29/2011
Cover art courtesy of my dear friend, Shocktarts.
A sequel to Mommy Nearest by Fairy Slayer. Please rate and review.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is property of Hasbro, Inc.
All her life, Rainbow had looked out her window and seen the lonely mountain. Atlas Rise, the Crown of Equestria, the Seat of the Sun—names it had in abundance, but none of them did any justice to the sheer size and magnitude of this natural wonder, this colossal rib of the world. As the chariot soared across the land, the peak loomed ever larger, dominating the eastern sky.
How ancient was this towering behemoth? Nopony could say. Not even Princess Celestia, as timeless as she was, could recall an age when the mountain had not been there. Forests were seeded, grew, and perished under her reign. Rivers ran dry and new ones gurgled forth to take their place. But the mountain endured. The mountain was forever.
It was a monument to prominence and permanence. Qualities the kingdom venerated, which was probably why they built the capital here. Moreover, it was a monument to patience. Forged in time immemorial, eons before the first pony set hoof upon the earth, from the slow seep of magma bubbling up over untold millions of years. All to create the misty blue peak which stood before Rainbow now, challenging every notion she had of big and small, old and young.
She was so busy staring at it, the sudden arrival of the Royal Guard took her by surprise.
“Hey, what’s going on?” she shouted, lifting herself over the side of the cart for a better look.
They fanned out around her in formation. Ponies on the left and right forming a flying V, ponies above, ponies below, ponies behind, and one pony in front decked out in golden armor that was so awesome, Rainbow figured he had to be the leader. Nonchalantly, she jumped over the side of the chariot and flew up to meet him.
“Hey, what’s up?” she asked.
“GET. BACK. IN. THAT. CHARIOT.”
He didn’t have to ask twice. The sheer power of his voice blew her head-over-hooves back into the cart. She rubbed her head and glared. “Sheesh, what a loudmouth.”
Rainbow wasn’t stupid. Something had these pegasi on edge. She could tell from the way they held their wings—a little too stiff for comfortable flying, even for the austere Royal Guard. And jeeze, how many of them were there? Twenty? Thirty? A little overkill for the fifteen minute flight from the valley up into the capital. Twilight never mentioned being accompanied by this many guards whenever she flew back to—
Just then, her eyes caught something in the sky. A shock of pastel rainbow hair and a flicker of white wings. The profile of an alicorn silhouetted against the clouds. Celestia.
“Alright, what the hay is going on?!” Rainbow asked of the drivers.
“Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ll get you to Canterlot safe and sound,” said the one on the left.
“Yeah, as long as you don’t go jumping ship again,” grumbled the other. “Just sit back and relax. We’ll make sure no harm comes to you.”
“Make sure no harm comes to me? Why the hay would I need you to—”
Before she could finish, they rounded the mountain, and great Castle Canterlot came into view. Canterlot, with its quartz spires and gilded domes; its statues of crystal and gold-plated bronze; its majestic, sparkling waterfalls crashing down from on high, pooling in basins the size of lakes before spilling over the lip, cascading to the countryside far below. Canterlot, heart of the nation, jewel of the world, sparkling white from its perch on the cliffside.
But wait, something wasn’t right. This was the back of the mountain. They were approaching the city from the wrong direction!
“Hey, what gives? How come we aren’t taking the front door?”
The drivers dipped a wing, putting them on a course directly toward the rocky crag. The escorts mirrored their movements and fell into an even tighter formation.
The chariot clattered to a stop on a wide ledge. Seconds later, a dozen pegasi touched down all around them. The rest of the guards remained aloft, swarming in the air, darkening the bluff with their great, winged shadows. Some distance away, Rainbow noticed a lone unicorn, also clothed in the vestments of the Royal Guard, standing idly by the mountainside.
“Rainbow Dash,” an oily voice breathed down her neck. It was the loudmouth white stallion with the so awesome golden armor. The one she figured to be the leader.
He stood an impressive height. Not quite as towering as Big Macintosh, but tall enough to loom over the side of the chariot and stare down at her with a superior air. His arrogant purple eyes smoldered with disdain through the gaps in his centurion helmet.
“Uh... Yo,” Rainbow said uncertainly.
The stallion sneered. “Miraculously enough, and despite your little in-flight detour, we’ve arrived. Now, if you would be so kind as to cooperate, we’ll see you safely into the castle. Do what I say, and I promise you won’t get hurt.”
Rainbow’s feathers bristled in anger. “Is this some kinda joke? You promise I won’t get hurt?”
“For your own safety, I advise you to comply.”
“First, how ‘bout you tell me what the hay’s going on?”
“Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Come with us, or I’ll make you come with us.”
Rainbow’s wings twitched. “I’d like to see you try,” she growled with a defiant scrape of her hoof.
They were all over her before she could react. A pair of pegasi swept in from behind and seized her by the arms, while the rest circled around and raised their wings like a Roman shield wall. Then they advanced, bearing a sputtering Rainbow at the center. Loudmouth had a smirk on his face. It pissed Rainbow the hell off.
“LET GO!” she yelled, kicking and biting, to no avail. They had an iron grip on her, and it hurt.
“Be a dear and shut up.”
“LET GO RIGHT NOW OR I SWEAR I’LL SHOVE A SONIC RAINBOOM SO FAR UP YOUR—”
“Temper, temper! We’re nearly there.”
Through a canopy of pegasus feathers, Rainbow spied the granite face of the mountain and the unicorn standing next to it. The unicorn bowed his head in concentration. His horn lit up. Then came the unmistakable sound of rock moving against rock, and a stone outcropping slid aside, revealing the gaping black maw of a cavern.
They dragged her inside, and she fought them all the way. The unicorn’s horn shimmered again, and the secret passageway closed, shrouding them in darkness.
“Lights,” spoke the leader, and instantly, a line of torches blazed with magic fire, casting weird, flickering shadows up and down the length of an underground corridor.
Rainbow saw her chance. The hall was narrow and too cramped for the pegasi on either side of her to maneuver. She twisted free of one, bucked the other, and made a break for it, her hooves clopping desperately against the stone floor.
She didn’t make it far before the leader stepped out in front of her.
“Get outta my way,” Rainbow demanded, though she didn’t feel half as brave as she sounded.
“I don’t think so,” said the stallion. He took a step forward—
Rainbow froze. That voice didn’t belong to any guard. It belonged to—
Luna. Princess Luna. Standing in the hall behind the leader. Looking on with patent concern.
“What is the meaning of this, Captain Tristar?”
“Protecting my charge as ordered, Princess,” he said, quickly turning and falling into a bow. The rest of the guards approached behind Rainbow and did the same. Rainbow just stood there, frozen in place, though her heart was still jackhammering away at a million miles an hour.
Luna took stock of Rainbow—her feathers disheveled, her mane tousled and matted with sweat, her breathing ragged, her whole body shaking. “Was it necessary for you to assault her in order to protect her?”
“Nothing of the sort, Princess. We were exposed on the cliff, and we had no choice but to make a forcible extraction,” the leader—Tristar—explained.
Luna nodded. “Very well. I’ll take it from here. Thank you.”
“Oh, and Captain?” Luna paused to give him the friendliest, most non-threatening smile ever. Then she proceeded to threaten him. “I’m sure Princess Celestia will be looking forward to your report on this matter.”
Tristar’s face darkened with rage. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Just like that, the confrontation was over. Luna motioned for Rainbow to follow her, and she did just that. The captain shot her a death glare as she passed by. She returned it in kind.
Then Luna and Rainbow rounded a corner, and Captain Tristar disappeared from sight.
Rainbow’s blood boiled. “Some welcoming committee you’ve got!”
“Hush. Not so loud. We’ll talk in a moment, but for now, stay quiet and follow me,” said Luna.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude or nothin’, but where are we?”
“In the Warrens. Most of these tunnels were carved out of the mountain more than a thousand years ago. They haven’t been used in almost as long. Not since the war.”
“We’re using them right now, aren’t we?”
“Sorry. I should have said they haven’t been lived in in over a thousand years.”
Rainbow recoiled. She hadn’t seen much of it, but this wasn’t someplace she would volunteer to spend any length of time. The whole thing was basically a maze of tunnels cut right out of the existing rock. They walked past crude doorways which led to rooms barely tall enough for a pony to stand in, and a myriad of side-passages that shot off the main drag, twisting and turning their way down into the darkness. That anypony could live in a place like this, cut off from the sun and sky, was unthinkable to her.
“They just lived here... temporarily, right?”
“Some did. Others never left. They’re still buried here, within these walls,” Luna replied casually. As if she were talking about the freaking weather.
A shiver ran down Rainbow’s spine. She walked a little closer to the goddess of the moon.
But now they came to their destination. The corridor ended abruptly at a sheer stone wall, which was devoid of any features save a single carved image of the sun. Luna lowered her horn to it, and Rainbow heard the distinctive click-click-click of a locking mechanism. The wall swung open on a hinge, and on the other side—
—was a library. No, not a library—an office, with a mahogany desk that dominated the center of the room. Bookshelves lined the walls of this circular chamber, packed with all manner of tomes and trinkets, and a cozy fire crackled in an elegant marble hearth. Light flooded in through an ample window, offering a gorgeous panoramic view of the Canterlot skyline.
Rainbow followed Luna through the doorway, stepping onto the plush, champagne white carpet. The bookcase swung shut behind her.
“Celestia’s private study. I, uh, hope you don’t mind us taking the secret entrance. There were... security concerns.”
Luna paused to look Rainbow over again. Her gaze lingered on the alicorn horn.
“So it’s true then. You really are her daughter. I... I didn’t believe her at first. It didn’t seem like it could be real. But I’m glad it is.”
Luna’s voice rang with sincerity, but hesitation reigned in those sapphire eyes. Her lips stretched into a nervous smile. Rainbow was baffled. The midnight alicorn seemed more like a scared filly on the first day of school than an all-powerful lunar goddess.
“So... uh... I take it you aren’t mad about the whole Nightmare Moon thing, then?”
Luna’s whole body tensed. “That was... somepony else. It wasn’t me.”
“Oh, good,” Rainbow chuckled nervously. “‘Cause I was gonna say, stealing the mustache off a sea serpent? Really? Whew. Glad I don’t have to give you a hard time over that one.”
The corners of Luna’s mouth pulled ever-so-slightly upward. “That was a little silly, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but I’ve gotta admit, those Shadowbolts had style. Black and purple with those awesome glow-in-the-dark flight goggles? Totally. Killer.”
“Yeah... Killer.” An expression of... something... flickered across Luna’s face, but it disappeared before Rainbow could lay her hoof on it. “Look, I didn’t have a chance to speak to you and the other Elements after... Well, you know. I... just want you to know how grateful I am. To all of you. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here now, and Celestia would still be...”
“Hey, no big deal! All in a day’s work for the Elements of Harmony, right?”
“It is a big deal to me. On behalf of the other five, please accept my gratitude.”
Then she did something that convinced Rainbow the world really had turned upside-down.
Luna, Goddess of the Moon and Second Princess of Equestria, bowed down to her.
Rainbow’s mind went blank as shock eclipsed rational thought. It was a feeling she was getting used to lately. “I... uh... wow. I don’t know what to say, Princess Luna. Gratitude accepted?”
“Thank you. And, um, you don’t have to call me princess. Just Luna is fine.”
“Sure thing, Luna. As long as I can be just Rainbow Dash and not the official thanks-bearer of the Elements of Harmony club.”
For the first time since Rainbow had met her, Luna smiled a genuine smile. She stifled a giggle behind her hoof. “Okay, Rainbow Dash, you have a deal. From now on, you can be the unofficial thanks-bearer. Does that sound better to you?”
“Not really, but I guess I’ll take it.”
“Good!” Luna ambled over to a set of tall white double doors. “Would you like to see the castle? I know you were here briefly for the Gala, but I’d be happy to give you the grand tour.”
Luna’s hoof hovered over the ornate golden handle. She hesitated. “Um. On second thought, maybe we should put off the tour for now. We should probably get you cleaned up first.”
“Huh?” Rainbow looked down at herself and realized how unkempt she was since her scuffle with the guards. “I... I don’t look that bad, do I? I mean, I wouldn’t expect to win any beauty pageants like this, but I usually look a whole lot worse after flying practice.”
“Flying practice. Right. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t a good idea for you to go around like that. It might cater to, um, certain preconceptions.”
Rainbow frowned. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”
“Nothing,” Luna said. She turned the handle.
The doors opened, revealing an elegant upstairs hall of the castle. Marble walls rose to meet a tall, arched ceiling. Tapestries and decorative urns stood formally throughout, while a procession of massive chandeliers bathed the corridor in light.
A pair of pegasi in full regalia stood on either side of the gaping door, stoic and expressionless. Rainbow slowed to look at them, thinking they seemed familiar, but Luna continued on without notice, and she had to hurry to catch back up.
“How’s my sister? Did she mention if she would be taking back over today?” Luna asked.
“Huh? Taking over?”
“The government. After she got Twilight’s emergency letter, she left me in charge of things here in Canterlot so she could go tend to the situation in Ponyville. I was, um, sort of hoping she’d be taking over her responsibilities again.”
“Sorry. Don’t know anything about that. Haven’t talked to her in a week.”
Luna almost tripped over her own hooves. “You—You haven’t? But she hasn’t been here either! Oh, but that means she’s...” Her voice trailed off.
“...Nothing. Never mind.”
The hallway led into a small rotunda. Here, the path forked. Identical marble corridors continued through arched doors on the north and east walls, while the west wall hosted a balcony, granting another awesome view of the countryside. Luna turned right, and Rainbow followed her down this new passageway.
She thought back to her arrival on the chariot. “Actually, I did see Celestia today.”
“You did? Where?!”
“Twenty minutes ago, when we were coming around the mountain. Right after Captain Jackass and his band of merry men joined up with us. I saw her in the sky.”
Luna grimaced. “Oh, Tia. She must have been expecting trouble.”
Rainbow stopped dead in her tracks. “Alright, Luna, spill it. Where’s Celestia? Why’d you send a whole platoon to bring me to Canterlot? And how come we had to take the creepy dead people tunnel to get here?”
“Oh... Um...” Luna’s face contorted with unease. “Uh... Hey, look! We’re here!”
Her horn glowed, and a nearby door creaked open. She ushered Rainbow inside.
Rainbow found herself in a masculine bedroom. Brilliant beige marble gleamed from every wall, and the floor was inset with geometric patterns. Columns of polished burgundy spanned upward to a two story height. In the center of the room stood a canopy bed dressed with silk bedclothes. The rest of the furnishings were just as opulent. On the far wall, another balcony looked out over the city, and a fire blazed in a massive fireplace.
“I hope you find the accommodations satisfactory.”
Rainbow’s jaw hung open. “This... is... so... AWESOME!”
She leapt onto the bed, throwing its pillows and coverings into disarray. “Come up here with me, Luna! This thing’s cool!”
“Um, no, that’s okay.”
Just then, the balcony struck her fancy. Rainbow jumped down and strolled over to it.
Warm sunlight kissed her face, and a gentle wind came up and caressed her forelock. Rainbow closed her eyes and leaned into it, breathing in the air and the many aromas that wafted on it— sweet roses, fresh-cut grass, and a hint of mountain mist.
“Hey, wanna go flying? It’s a really nice day, and the air currents are just right for—”
“NO!” Luna shouted.
Rainbow whirled around to stare at her in alarm.
Luna lowered her voice, looking sheepish. “Um, I mean, no. This is important, Rainbow Dash. You mustn’t leave. Not for any reason. Not even to go flying! Inside of these walls and upon the grounds, the castle’s magic will protect you. But if you leave this place, you will be in danger. Do you understand?”
Rainbow’s mouth went dry. “What...”
“Princess Luna! Princess Luna!” yipped a voice from out in the hall. Moments later, a little yellow unicorn mare burst into the bedroom, panting frantically.
Luna looked at her curiously. “What is it, Domo?”
“Lord Brilliant... is demanding... an audience,” she managed to choke out. “Something about... property entitlements. For his son in Manehattan. He stormed in... blustering about... how he thought Princess Celestia was a pony of her word...”
“Oh no,” Luna groaned. “Has he been waiting long?”
Luna gave Rainbow an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to stay. I’ve got this little... court... thingy... to take care of. Uh... Domo, this is Princess Aurora. She is Celestia’s daughter. Could you please tend to her while I talk to Lord Brilliant? Make her as comfortable as possible. And, um, see that she gets a bath.”
Domo’s eyes widened. “P-Princess Aurora?! Celestia’s daughter?! I mean—Yes, Your Majesty!”
“Excuse me.” With one last pitiful smile, Luna slipped through the door, leaving Rainbow alone with a sputtering Domo.
But not for long. “I... I... I... I’ll be right back!” Domo said, tearing out of the room.
Rainbow was dumbfounded. With nothing to do and nopony to talk to, she wandered back over to the bed and flopped down. A frown creased her brow as she stared up at the ceiling.
“What the hay.”
Domo returned fifteen minutes later accompanied by two other ponies. The door still hung open, so she stuck her head in to announce herself. “Princess Aurora...?”
“Mmm... Rainbow Dash. Call mmmfff... Rainbow Dash.”
Domo took a few hesitant steps into the room. The pair followed her in tow. “Your Majesty?”
Rainbow didn’t so much as lift her head to greet her. The bed was way too comfortable for her to consider moving even a single muscle. She teetered on the brink of sleep, all the tension in her wings and body melting into the softness of the cushion.
Domo came closer still. “Your Majesty?”
There was that annoying voice again. Why wouldn’t it leave her alone? “Goway,” she groaned.
“Er... Did you say something, Princess?”
Rainbow tugged a pillow over her head. “Gowayanlemmesleep.”
“Could you repeat that a little more loudly, Your Majesty?”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I still didn’t quite understand.”
She snapped awake, flinging the pillow aside and eyeing Domo crossly. “What?!”
“Oh!” Domo fell into a low bow, as did the ponies flanking her. “Princess Aurora! You’re awake! For a moment, I was afraid you might have been sleeping.”
Rainbow facehoofed. She could already feel her temper ignite.
”I’m Domo, chief steward to Her Majesty Princess Celestia’s royal house. Please excuse me if I seem a bit... scattered. We weren’t notified of your arrival. But now that you’re here, you can be rest assured we’ll do everything in our power to make you as comfortable as possible!”
“Rest assured, huh?” Rainbow grumbled. “Good. Then you can shut up and lemme rest.”
“Oh... Yes, Your Majesty.”
She closed her eyes and fell back onto the mattress. It was barely past noon, but she was tired, darn it, and her mind and body were dead set on a siesta. One of her patented Rainbow Dash Extra-Strength Power Naps would do the trick.
The interruption had been jarring, but sweet, blessed sleep was still there, dancing on the edges of her consciousness. She felt herself drifting off again, lulled by the quiet whisper of the wind through the open balcony, the steady inhale and exhale of her own lungs...
...the sound of somepony coughing...
She snapped awake again. Domo and her cohorts were still there!
Rainbow threw her arms in the air. “What do you want?!”
“To make you as comfortable as possible, Your Majesty!” said Domo.
“How am I s’posed to sleep with you watching me?! Do you have any idea how creepy that is?!”
“Oh. Would you prefer it if we didn’t watch you?”
“As you wish, Princess!”
Domo signalled the ponies on her left and right. Then the three of them turned to face the wall, leaving a flabbergasted Rainbow Dash to stare at their backsides.
Her eye twitched. “Are. You. Serious.”
“Are you done sleeping yet, Your Majesty?”
“Yes,” Rainbow said sharply.
“In that case, may we turn around again?”
Rainbow scowled and rolled out of bed. So much for her power nap. “Knock yourselves out.”
Domo looked at Rainbow and gasped. “Oh, dear! I pray you don’t mind me saying so, Princess Aurora, but you look dreadful! Your feathers are so ruffled, it’s unsightly! And your mane! Why, it’s simply uncouth! You must allow us to assist you!”
“The name’s Rainbow Dash. And what’s the matter with with my mane?!” she asked, running a self-conscious hoof through her forelock.
“Say no more, Your Majesty, but allow us the privilege of running you a bath!”
“I ain’t takin’ no stinkin’ bath.”
“Oh, but you must, Your Majesty! Princess Luna personally requested it!”
Rainbow stopped. Luna had stressed how important it was for her to make a good appearance. And she didn’t want to disappoint Luna...
“Well... Alright. Run the stupid bath, then.”
No sooner did the words leave her mouth than Domo and her attendants took hold of her. She squawked with indignation, but her protests went unheeded. They whisked her into an adjoining bathroom.
And what a bathroom! It was almost as large as the bedroom, and that was saying something. Whimsical arabesques spiralled up the walls, set between towering, majestic mosaics depicting the phases of the sun and moon. Fixtures of gold and silver glimmered in the low light cast by a crown chandelier and a dozen or so wall sconces.
The ponies on either side of her—a gray mare and a gray stallion, she now realized—bore her into a raised basin, which might just as easily have been a swimming pool as a bathtub. The stallion’s horn glowed, and water started pouring in from faucets on all four sides.
Rainbow’s eyes widened. “Wh-What are you doing?!”
“Making everything as comfortable for you as possible, Your Majesty!” said Domo. She struck a match and lit a stick of incense, perfuming the air with the rich, earthy fragrance of amber.
Meanwhile, Rainbow stared up at the other two ponies in horror. “This is not comfortable!”
“It’s not?” Domo dipped a hoof into the water. Her expression soured. “Oh can’t the two of you do anything right? This is much too cold!” she chided the grays. “Forgive me, Princess Aurora. I’ll warm it up for you.”
The water, which had already risen past Rainbow’s haunches, went twenty degrees hotter in the span of a second. Rainbow yelped and shot straight up out of the bath!
Domo and the other servants tilted their heads back in alarm. “Your Majesty?”
“I’M NOT COMING DOWN! I CAN TAKE A BATH ALL BY MYSELF, THANKYOUVERYMUCH!” Rainbow yelled, swinging wildly from the chandelier.
“But Your Majesty, I must insist!” said Domo. Her horn glowed.
The chandelier went slippery, as if the whole thing were suddenly coated in oil. Rainbow felt her grip weaken. The next thing she knew, she was falling, down, down—
—straight back into the bath.
She jolted back to the surface, coughing and sputtering and gasping for air. She could barely see through her bangs, dripping wet and hanging low over her eyes. Couldn’t escape, either— not with these waterlogged wings. Before she could even think about making a last-ditch wade toward freedom, she felt a pair of hooves restrain her and hold her down, while another dumped a cold, moist, sickly-smelling shampoo over her head.
“There, Princess Aurora! That doesn’t feel so bad, does it?” said Domo as the servants lathered the icky stuff into her mane.
“Rainbow Dash,” she gurgled through the bathwater. “Call me Rainbow Dash.”
The next thirty minutes were a lesson in humiliation for Rainbow as she was spritzed, scrubbed, moisturized, bristle-brushed, and loofahed half to death. At long last, her torture drew to a close. She emerged from the bath feeling violated, clinging to the tattered remains of her privacy.
Then came the towels! Horrible levitating towels which chased her out into the bedroom! As she ran around screaming her head off, she managed to shed water onto every priceless piece of antique wooden furniture in the room. She actually threw Luna’s cautionary words to the wind and made a break for the balcony, but the towels cornered her first and proceeded to smother the hay out of her. Stupid towels.
Just when she thought it was over, she spotted something out of the corner of her eye—one of the gray ones, coming toward her with a bottle of... mysterious green liquid! Oh, Celestia, NO!
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
Domo appeared suddenly beside Rainbow and made her jump five feet in the air. “Now that you are clean and dry, we will anoint you with ointments, lotions, and perfumes!”
“NO OINTMENTS. NO PERFUMES.”
Domo blinked. “What about the lotions?”
“NONE OF THOSE EITHER.”
“Oh...” Domo scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Well, in that case, I guess we can move on to the next step. We will prepare a wardrobe for you and dress you in—”
“I DON’T WEAR CLOTHES.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t start wearing clothes! Besides, we have all the finest stylings of the Canterlot fashion scene! Including a brand new line from Hoity Toity, based on the designs of a brilliant up-and-coming fashionista he discovered in Ponyville, of all places—”
Rainbow facehoofed again. Damn you, Rarity!
“But I suppose the wardrobe can wait until later. After all, we still need to do your hair!”
Domo and her minions took a step back. “P-Princess Aurora?”
Rainbow’s whole body quaked with rage. She struggled to see the trio of servants through the thick red haze that was quickly seeping across her vision. Go to your happy place, Dash. Count the clouds. One cumulus, two cumulus, three cumulus, four...
“Look, I’m not interested in baths, or clothes, or hairstyles, or—or—LOTIONS,” she roared at the gray stallion, who was still trying to sneak up on her with the bottle. “All I want is some FOOD. I haven’t eaten in forever! Do you think you can at least do THAT for me?”
If Domo caught the sarcasm in Rainbow’s voice, she didn’t show it. “Certainly, Princess Aurora! The kitchen is always open! Allow us to escort you there!”
“My name is Rainbow Dash,” she said through gritted teeth.
But they paid no attention and hurried out the door. Domo poked her head back in. “Coming?”
Rainbow had half a mind to slam the door in her face, but a rumbling in her belly convinced her otherwise. She followed the annoying yellow unicorn out and down the hall, the pair of grays trailing dutifully behind.
After traversing yet another maze of corridors, they arrived at the dining hall. It was no less grand than what Rainbow had come to expect. A marble floor, the color of jade, gleamed in the light of so many candelabras. The table stretched forty feet down the center of the room, with seating enough for twenty ponies on either side—not including two massive chairs, one at either end, bearing the emblems of the sun and moon.
Rainbow very coolly, very casually sat down in the seat nearest to her. Which just so happened to be the big one with the picture of the sun on it. All three servants let out a shrill gasp.
“What’s wrong?” Rainbow asked.
“That’s—That’s—Princess Celestia’s chair!”
They looked nervously to the walls, where stained glass depictions of ponies throughout history glared down on them with fierce, judgmental eyes. One image in particular had them riveted—a colorful scene recalling the lunar exile of Nightmare Moon. Boy, did Celestia ever look pissed off in that one!
Domo turned several shades paler. Her eyes darted around the room, as if unseen spies might be lurking in the shadows. “Nopony has ever sat in Princess Celestia’s chair before.”
“Eh, who cares? I’m sure she won’t mind. Besides, she isn’t here now, is she?”
Her lip quivered. “But... But...”
“But nothing. Jeeze, Domo, are you always this high-strung? Just sit down and shut up already.”
“Sit down?! But Your Majesty, it would be highly improper for me to dine at the same table as—”
“Look, I can’t eat anything with you guys standing over me. Gives me the heebie-jeebies worse than Rarity before a race. So sit down.” She looked at the gray mare and stallion. “You too.”
The servants reluctantly took seats at the table. Shortly thereafter, they were joined by a waiter who strolled in through a pair of swinging doors.
He didn’t make it far. The moment his eyes fell on the odd foursome, he just about tripped over his hooves and face-planted. “She eez een zee chair!”
Domo shrugged helplessly.
The waiter opened and closed his mouth several times, his dainty French mustache standing on end. “Very well!” he finally said. “On your ‘eads be eet! What will you ‘ave to eat?”
Everypony looked at Rainbow.
“What? Isn’t anypony else hungry? How come I gotta be the first to order? ...Oh, fine. Whatever. I guess I’ll have... uh... a daisyburger and hayfries.”
“A daizyburgeh and ‘ayfries.” The waiter’s lip curled, his eyes narrowed with rage. “‘Ow very... rustic. Per’aps madame would care to try some of zee kitchen’s more cultured deeshes.”
“Nah, a daisyburger and hayfries will be fine.”
His face rapidly contorted into a number of expressions, none of which could be described as serene. “Oui oui, madame. I will return shortly with your... food.” With a derisive snort, the waiter spun and walked out.
Rainbow took no notice. She stretched out luxuriously on the regal chair, looking content for the first time since... well, since the bath from hell, at least. “So—”
“Your Majesty, I just want to say what a privilege it is to sit at the same table as you,” Domo said. “I think I speak for everypony here. We’re honored.”
The other two servants nodded vigorously.
“Yeah? So you three are fans of mine or something? That’s cool. Did you see me in Cloudsdale at the Best Young Flyer Competition?”
“Um. No. Not exactly,” said Domo.
“Oh. Well, that’s okay. Tell me more about how awesome I am.”
Domo threw her arms in the air for dramatic effect. “You are Princess Celestia’s daughter!”
The unicorn’s smile flickered, but her eyes retained the same wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights expression as ever. “The same blood that runs in Princess Celestia also runs in your veins!”
“Lemme get this straight. The only reason you respect me is because I’m related to Celestia.”
“I—well—no, Your Majesty! You are also so incredibly... um... pretty!”
Rainbow rubbed her temples. Why did it all suddenly taste so bitter? “Look. Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. I don’t know a thing about you.”
Domo flushed. “Me, Your Highness? I’m honored that you would think to ask—”
“No. Not you. Anyone but you. I’ve listened to you just about as much as I can bear.” She turned to face the mare and stallion. “You guys. Tell me about yourselves.”
“Oh, they don’t talk, Your Majesty.” Domo laughed.
Rainbow ignored her. “C’mon. What’s your name?”
The gray mare went wide-eyed with the realization that Rainbow was addressing her. Terrified, she looked back and forth between Rainbow and Domo. “L-L-Lady’s Maid, Your Majesty,” she said in a voice so meek, she might have given Fluttershy a run for her money.
“What are your hobbies? You know, things you like to do for fun in your free time?”
“In my free time, I like, uh...” She stopped mid-sentence at the sight of Domo, who was waving her arms frantically, drawing her hoof across her throat to make the universal ‘kill’ signal, all just out of Rainbow’s field of view. “Um... What are... your... hobbies? ...Your Majesty?”
“Me? I like cloudball, stunt flying, the Wonderbolts...”
“I... um... I like the Wonderbolts... too.”
“You do?!” Rainbow leaned forward, excitement shining in her eyes. “I’ve loved the Wonderbolts forever! Ever since my dad took me to one of their shows when I was a little filly! The way they fly so fast, in sync—so awesome! Hey, who’s your favorite?”
“Um... Who’s... your... favorite? ...Your Majesty?”
Rainbow opened her mouth, but suddenly stopped. Her eyes narrowed to mere slits. “Soarin’,” she said slowly. “Spitfire’s my second. I’ve always admired her sonic rainboom.”
“My favorite is... um... Soarin’ as well. Followed by Spitfire. I agree that her sonic rainboom is... very... um... impressive.”
How stupid of her to imagine—even for a second!—that there might actually be somepony in this miserable castle with whom she had something in common. That the ponies who worked here might fall into some category other than pompous assholes and fake flank-kissers.
Cold fury descended on her. Her gaze turned to fire and ice. “I see.”
The gray mare shrank into her chair.
A few uncomfortable minutes later, the swinging doors burst open, and the waiter stormed back into the room bearing a silver-lidded platter. He placed it on the table in front of Rainbow Dash and lifted the cover with a smirk. “Bon appetit, madame!”
“What. Is. This.”
The stench hit her first—a pungent blend of sewage, roadkill, and rotting fish. It didn’t fare any better in the looks department. It looked like... like... something a mother bird might vomit up to feed her young. A coiled mass of glistening purple strands, like half-digested worms.
The waiter set the table with silverware and began filling their goblets from a pitcher.
“Eet eez kelp salad. Zee chef, ‘e refused even to consider preparing a deesh like zee one you requested. And ‘ow can I blame ‘im? A daisyburgeh and ‘ayfries! Such... commoner food!”
“...Commoner food.” There was no emotion in Rainbow’s voice. Just an ominous calm.
Here came the storm, a-writhing and a-roiling, shooting blinding harpoons of death from amidst billowing black sails, screaming with the fury of an angry god. It wouldn’t be long now.
“We do not serve such slop een zees kitchen! Eet eez poison, unfit for consumption—except by zee sweaty, uneducated commoners who toil een zee fields and zee skies, bucking trees and pushing clouds! ‘ere in zees castle, we have much more rarefied tastes!”
“Jacques, you idiot! Do you have any idea who this is? This is Princess Celestia’s own daughter! Just bring her a burger and fries!” Domo looked apologetic. “Forgive his folly, Princess Aurora. He didn’t realize who you—”
“MY NAME IS RAINBOW DASH!”
There was a resounding CRACK! and the crystal goblets shattered, sending razor-sharp shards of glass flying everywhere. Domo and the grays cringed while the waiter backpedalled, tripping and falling through the door when Rainbow SLAMMED her hooves against the table, eyes and horn aglow, rising up above them like a primal force of nature!
“RAINBOW. DASH. THAT’S THE NAME MY MOM AND DAD GAVE ME, AND IT OUGHTA BE GOOD ENOUGH FOR ANYPONY.”
Now the glass shards arose from the floor and joined in a deafening whirlwind, spinning a tight circle around Domo and the others. The candles flickered and went out, plunging the room into darkness, while the air was filled with the crackle of magic and the tempest’s mighty roar!
Domo whimpered and threw herself down on the floor, shielding herself against the magic storm with her arms. “Your Majesty—Princess Aurora—Rainbow Dash!” she screamed from her refuge underneath the table. “Please, stop this!”
Instantaneously, the light went out of Rainbow’s eyes. All the airborne debris froze on the spot, then fell unceremoniously back down to the ground.
Domo ran screaming from the room, the grays hot on her hooves.
Rainbow chased them as far as the doorway, sticking her head out into the corridor just in time to see the three of them skid around a corner. “AND I CAN TAKE MY OWN DAMN BATHS!” she shouted down the hall after them.
She leaned against the wall, heart thundering in her ears, sucking down air in short, shuddering breaths. The room was spinning. It wasn’t doing that before, was it?
Rainbow winced. “Shoulda took that power nap.”
She took a few minutes to steady herself, squeezing her eyes shut to fight the motion sickness that was threatening to unleash her breakfast. When she opened them again and turned around to take stock of the damage, she was floored at what she saw.
Toppled chairs lay amid a field of scattered candles, tempest-plucked from their chandeliers and candelabras, which were also in disarray. The suits of armor were a bit battered, but still intact. As was the table, which—while too heavy to be flipped or flung about like everything else—had still managed to drift several feet from its proper home.
The place was a mess.
It didn’t help that there was kelp salad covering everything.
“What the hay,” she muttered. Her expression of the day, apparently.
With the hired help gone—probably cowering for their lives in some decrepit corner of the castle sub-basement—Rainbow set about the task of cleaning up. She wrinkled her nose and gathered the kelp, piled up the candles, straightened the chairs, and even threw her shoulder against the massive table in a semi-successful effort to push it back.
All the while, her mind did somersaults, struggling to come to terms with the fact that somehow, she had done all this.
When the room was halfway put back together, she stepped back and admired her work. Okay, it wasn’t exactly like it was when she got here. But it was the best she could do.
Rainbow sighed. “So much for lunch.” And with that, she took her leave.
She didn’t notice the pair of intelligent silver eyes observing from the shadows. It seemed there was a spy after all.
The eyes followed her down the ivory corridor. Then down another. And another.
Perhaps news of Celestia’s daughter had circulated among the Royal Guard. Perhaps they were attentive of her bodily extremities and deferred to the majesty of horn and wing. Or perhaps they felt the pulsating rage coming off her and simply decided to give her a wide berth.
Whatever the reason, they didn’t stop her once as she stormed through the castle’s innermost halls and sanctums. She blew past a dozen patrols, including one that barked out a gruff “Halt!” as she went by. But she didn’t stop, and they didn’t pursue.
Neither did they stop the spy with the silver eyes. But he didn’t afford them an opportunity.
She took turns at random. Seemingly lost. Seeming not to care. She traversed the key-shaped archway that separated the royal estate’s more intimate quarters from the formal wing, and ten minutes later, she stood before the great golden doors of the throne room.
And the pair of silver eyes followed her inside.
Luna’s “court” was in session, though the term was hardly apropos. The throne room was empty save for the princess, her guards, some porters, and a fat ugly tumor.
But look! See now how she slinks in the shadows, how she skirts the royal spotlight! And for that matter, the stairs—see how she waits until the court is distracted, then flits up to a second story balcony when nopony is looking! Under her own power! Using her own two wings!
See how she stands there with fire in her eyes!
She was headstrong, temperamental, more dangerous than she knew. And simultaneously ten times more interesting than everypony else in this stuffy palace. How much things had changed in twenty years. How far she had come.
The silver eyes were joined by a smile. An introduction was in order.
Sheesh. And here Rainbow thought she was having a bad time.
Yeah, she’d trashed the dining room, watched her dignity go down the drain with the bathwater, and worst of all, she was still hungry. But before any of that, Luna had scurried off to go deal with this Lord Brilliant guy. And she was still talking to him! Two hours later!
Well, maybe talking to him wasn’t the right way to phrase it. Actually, it looked like Lord Brilliant was doing most of the talking. Luna was just sitting there, cradling her head in her hooves.
Lord Brilliant huffed in a high falsetto, “It’s SCANDALOUS, Your Majesty! An affront to my title! An insult to my family name! That the Brilliant clan, who are of such HIGH and NOBLE stock, should bow to the whims of some—some—COMMON STRUMPET!”
He was about 20% fatter than the fattest pony Rainbow Dash had ever seen. He was so fat, she could count the fat rolls rippling down his body, even from way in the back! A fat unicorn with about seven dozen chins and a gold coat which bulged under the effort of containing the sheer fat-fat-fattiness that was Lord Brilliant. Also, he was fat.
She wondered if he could walk under the weight of all that fat, or even stand. Didn’t look like it. Lord Brilliant reclined on a luxurious chaise lounge, ensconced within a curtained compartment. Four earth ponies carried the compartment on poles, teetering and groaning under the burden of the great equine blob who was their liege.
Luna, on the other hoof, looked diminutive. Feeble and slouched, she seemed several sizes too small for the throne she was attempting to fill. “Lord Brilliant, I’m sure that’s an unfair description. I have every confidence that the mayor of New Yoke City is a pony of unimpeachable—”
“YES! A stupendous idea, Your Highness! IMPEACH HER! Impeach her at once!”
Luna facehoofed. “That isn’t what I was trying to—”
“Oh, she SHOULD be impeached! Do you know what she said to my son?! She told him that she represents the PEOPLE! And that the will of the people is more important than his business interests! And that she has more authority than ME! Simply because she happens to have been DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED! Isn’t that funny? What a JOKE!”
“If I may interject—”
“It’s not like the land is being used for anything, anyway! It’s a vast wilderness, ripe for industry, sitting unused in the middle of the city! My son is well within his rights of nobility to demand the local government cede the property to his company for development!”
Luna massaged her forehead to alleviate the migraine. It didn’t work. “Lord Brilliant, I may have been on the moon for a long time, but I think Central Park has some significance to the people of Manehattan. They might be saddened to see it bulldozed to make room for a factory.”
Lord Brilliant scoffed. “RUBBISH!”
By now, their bickering was just a buzz in Rainbow’s ear. She yawned and stared off into space. This was really boring. Maybe she should go and—
Just then, she saw him. An old unicorn, royal purple, with a silvery beard that fell halfway down his chest. Watching her from the opposing balcony, from behind a pair of half-moon spectacles.
Rainbow looked away. When she looked back five seconds later, he was gone.
A growl of protest from her stomach reminded her how hungry she was. She decided to head back to the kitchen. Even if the culinary staff were all bomb sheltering it up, she could still whip up something herself in the microwave. Any idiot could use a microwave, right?
Luna sneezed. “Gesundheit,” said a guard.
Yeah, this place was dullsville. Time to blow this popsicle stand. Rainbow turned to leave—
—and bumped right into him! The old purple geezer!
She flailed back. “WAHHH! Where’d you come from?!”
He smiled at her with a twinkle in his eye. “Over there.”
A slack-jawed Rainbow Dash looked back and forth between where the elderly unicorn currently stood on her balcony and where he had been just a few moments ago, fifty feet away on the far side of the room. “How’d you do that?! You got over here in ten seconds flat!”
“Just a little talent of mine.”
Ordinarily, Rainbow might have been a little creeped out. But there was something about him— an aura of kindness and serenity that took the edge off the strange encounter.
Rainbow looked at him quizzically. “What’s your name?”
“My name is irrelevant. Who you are is much more important.”
“Oh yeah? Well then, Mister Irrelevant, who am I?”
He smiled again, even more broadly than before, and a spiderweb of wrinkles creased his face, radiating outward from his mouth and eyes. “Such a question. Can who you are be summed up in a sentence? In a paragraph? In a page?”
Rainbow’s expression was deadpan. “Try me.”
“You are a mare with two names. The name you prefer is the name you have known all your life. You are Rainbow Dash. The fastest pony in Equestria. The only known practitioner of the fabled sonic rainboom. The Fifth Element of Harmony, the Avatar of Loyalty, and one sixth the downfall of the tyrant, Nightmare Moon.”
Rainbow puffed up, looking smug. “Well, at least somepony around here got the memo.”
“You are also Aurora. The Third Princess of Equestria, and daughter to somepony very special. It is a name you have only known recently, and a name you have come to resent. But for all its slings and arrows, do not forget what you have gained by this name.”
She searched his eyes for a clue. Finding none, she relented. “What have I gained?”
The old unicorn smiled warmly. “A mother who loves you.”
Rainbow fell silent. She didn’t have a haughty retort for that one.
“Furthermore, just looking at you, I can tell you don’t wash behind your ears.”
Before she could react, he reached behind her ear—and pulled out a shiny gold bit!
“Nice sleight of hoof.” Her eyes darted to his cutie mark: three colored spheres—one red, one blue, and one green—like something a juggler might toss. “So what are you, some kinda court jester or something?”
He chuckled. “Something like that.”
“THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!”
Lord Brilliant’s shrill voice pierced the air. Apparently, things were coming to a head down on the throne room floor. Luna was on her hooves now, and the fat aristocrat was practically steaming at the ears.
“I remember when this court had INTEGRITY! When the Second Estate came FIRST!”
“Now, see here, Lord Brilliant! My sister would never tolerate this kind of... of... rudeness!”
“Princess Celestia? WHERE IS SHE? I’d rather talk to her! I’m certain SHE would remember—My family’s loyalty goes back a thousand years! We stood with her in the War of Night Eternal! But I suppose that wouldn’t mean much to YOU, would it?!”
Luna’s eyes widened. “What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“I shall take my leave now, thank you! Do notify me when Princess Celestia resumes the throne! Perhaps then I’ll have the opportunity to bring my son’s proposal to somepony with a record of being on the RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY!”
Lord Brilliant motioned to his earth pony porters, who proceeded to bear his overstuffed carcass toward the exit. Luna could only stare, shocked beyond words.
Rainbow felt a tidal wave of anger crash against her. She was about to fly down and give the fat blowhard a piece of her mind, but then she felt a gentle hoof on her shoulder.
She glanced up to see the unicorn’s eyes half-closed, his horn emitting an onyx glow. Then—
The poles snapped clean off the back of Lord Brilliant’s booth! The earth ponies tried to salvage it, but it was too late—the whole thing tipped over, and Lord Brilliant, spherical as he was, went rolling right out the back on his fantastically round belly!
Lord Brilliant’s fat face was a blur as he whirled head-over-hooves down the center of the room, finally skidding to a halt before the throne. There he lay, wiggling his arms and legs ineffectually, too obese to stand!
“HELP ME!” he rasped. “I’VE FALLEN AND I CAN’T GET UP!”
Rainbow clamped a hoof over her mouth to keep the laughter in.
Luna looked down at him, horrified. “Are you alright?!”
By some incredible feat of wriggling, Lord Brilliant managed to roll over onto his belly, prostrating himself before the lunar princess. “MERCY, YOUR MAJESTY! MERCY! MERCY!”
Luna’s eyes grew wider still. “But—But I didn’t—!”
“PLEASE!” he cried, bawling like a frightened child. “DON’T HURT ME!”
The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees.
Torment flashed across Luna’s face as old regrets, freshly buried, were once again unearthed. Time slowed down, and in a moment that stretched to eternity, she was transported to another place, a different era. A thousand years of sorrows reflected in her teal blue eyes.
Suddenly, Rainbow didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
“Jeeze,” she muttered. “Some ponies really can’t take a practical joke, huh?”
She waited for the old unicorn to chime in with another salvo of fortune cookie wisdom. When a few seconds went by and he still hadn’t taken her brain for another spin around crazy town, she glanced up.
He was gone. Vanished, without a trace. Again. He’d been standing right there, right next to her. Then, POOF! And she hadn’t even noticed!
How did he DO that?
She scanned the room, but there was no sign of him. Not on the ground, not on this balcony, not on the balcony across the way, not on any of the other ones.
He had just... disappeared.
And still the silver eyes watched, unseen.
Watched her search for him high and low. Watched the frustration alight upon her face. Watched her succumb at last to boredom and aggravation, and vexed, glide down from the platform and out the door. Still shirking the attention of the court.
Who was this mare who blew up dining rooms? Not the quivering little ball of blue fur and pudge he had known so long ago. And to think—she even embodied an Element! Would Celestia have consented to send her away if she had known? And if she had stayed, what then? Would a dull castle upbringing have sparked such a fire in the lighthouse of her soul? Or would the Element have passed her by, like a ship in the night, to moor upon alternate shores?
How strong she had become. And how proud.
There was no place more breathtaking than the East Garden.
The setting sun cast its eye upon the place, tempering the natural palette of emerald and white, bathing the field in an amber glow. Here and there were delicate maples, mighty oaks, and other trees that were alien, but no less stupendous—slender, graceful things, draped with reams of golden leaves, reaching up to kiss the sky. As twilight approached, the birds retired for the night and an army of fireflies took their place, winking in and out in the dwindling light.
In the center, there stood a statue. Not a statue of marble or crystal or gold, as typified so many monuments in High Canterlot, but a statue of basalt, plain and gray. For of all the statues in the city, this one was the oldest. Constructed in the time of Canterlot’s foundation, from stone borne by ancient lava flows long ago harvested from the mountain.
It rose up ten feet, and the shadow it cast stretched long in the evening sun. The sculpture of an alicorn, his head held high, his horn proudly displayed, decked in armor, with a crown situated atop his noble brow. His face was gentle, but reflected a will of iron.
There he stood, day after day. Like a four-legged sundial. Winding his umbra across the garden, marking the passage of hours, years, centuries.
And on the pedestal, these words appeared:
FRIEND, FATHER, FOUNDER
HE WHO RAISED THE HEAVENS
LIFTED THE WORLD OUT OF DARKNESS
In the shade of this silent sentinel, Rainbow Dash lay flat on her back, arms tucked behind her head, gazing up at the sky with longing. Remembering how it felt to be up there. The way the cold air filled her lungs, making her feel alive. Then, as she swept back her wings and fell into a dive—the velocity! the adrenaline! the wind in her mane! the sudden rush of vertical g’s as she levelled out, and the world righted itself!
What was she doing here?
There was nothing for her in Canterlot. Nothing and nobody. Still no sign of her so-called mother after all this time, and she hadn’t seen hide nor hoof of Luna in three days.
Toward Canterlot. Toward Celestia. Toward tomorrow.
Toward confinement. Toward concealment. Toward boring.
She wanted to be back home! Back in Ponyville, with her friends! She wanted to race Applejack through Whitetail Wood, play pranks with Pinkie Pie, rehearse her routine for the Wonderbolts to Fluttershy’s soft-spoken chorus of “yay.” She wanted to sleep the day away on a cloud—and if the mayor said, “Make it rain,” she’d just give that cloud a kick and let it water the ground below, then go off and find another cloud to sleep on.
She wanted her old life back! She wanted her friends! Heck, even Rarity would be preferable to all the fakes and weirdos around this stupid place.
Just a month or two, she told herself, clamping down on her rising homesickness. Twilight said it would only be for a month or two. I’ll be back home soon...ish. ...Eventually.
Rainbow heard hoofsteps coming down the walk. She looked up and spied a navy-blue pegasus ambling her direction, humming a familiar tune. He wore a straw hat and a neat gray beard, and he carried a watering can in his mouth.
He stopped at a bed of magnolias not ten feet away. Without so much as acknowledging her, he started watering the flowers.
Rainbow stared. She had been living at the castle for days, but she could count on four hooves the number of servants she’d seen in all that time—Domo, the waiter, and the two other ones. She got the impression they weren’t really intended to be seen. That the ponies who worked at the castle were meant to remain invisible to the ponies who lived in it.
Yet here was a gardener, toiling away right in front of her.
“Uh... Hi,” she said.
The pegasus glanced up at her from under the brim of his hat. “Oh. Hello. Didn’t see you there.”
Then he turned his back and resumed his watering.
Rainbow blinked. Something wasn’t right here.
She stood and walked over, regarding him with a furrowed brow. “That’s it?”
“That’s all you’re gonna say?”
A chuckle escaped his lips. The magnolias were sated; he continued on to the next flower patch and tipped his watering can again. “What else would you have me say, lass?”
“Well—Look at me!”
The old blue pegasus did as he was told. He put down the watering can and paused to give her a thorough survey, looking her over head to hoof.
“You look alright to me,” he said with a shrug. Then he went right back to watering the plants.
Rainbow stared, stupefied. “Aren’t you gonna bow down and tell me who I am?”
“Do you want me to bow down to you?”
“I—well, no, but—”
“Then I won’t bow down to you. Do you want me to tell you who you are?”
“...No. Not really.”
“I didn’t think so. In my experience, folks around these parts are usually all too happy to tell you who to be and how to behave. I like to let people define themselves.” The last few drops trickled from the spout of his container, and he started toward a nearby fountain to refill it.
Rainbow jogged to keep up with him. “So, who are you?”
“Me?” he laughed, filling the vessel beneath the stepped cascade. “I’m no one important.”
“C’mon! You’re, like, the first normal pony I’ve met since I got here. What’s your name?”
The pegasus just smiled knowingly. He took the container in his teeth again, water sloshing over the sides, and strolled back over to the flowerbed without answering.
Rainbow’s face soured. “What is it about ponies around here not telling me their names?!”
“Names are meaningless things,” he said, hovering over a patch of chrysanthemums. “Call me anything you like. No matter what you call me, it won’t change who I am on the inside. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?”
“I... guess...” she said, giving him an odd look. “Fine then. I’ll just call you Gardener.”
The old pegasus snorted and shook his head. “That’s a terrible name.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Because I’m not a gardener,” he replied, moving on to the tiger lilies. “Gardeners wield shovels and trowels. They dig up the earth, and then they grow the seeds they plant themselves. As for me... My seed sowing days are over. I don’t plant the flowers. I just help them on their way.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Okay then, wiseguy. If you’re not a gardener, then what are you?”
He stooped over plot of morning glories, the speckled indigo flowers shriveling in the fading light of day. “I suppose you can think of me more as a caretaker.”
They stood in silence for a spell, Rainbow Dash and the caretaker, until he exhausted his store of water again. Then he set down the container and turned to look on her with with an eyebrow raised. “So, what’s your name?”
She paused. Would he know her by her common name? Then again, did she really want to start going by her royal one? She already felt like she was losing herself in this place. They’d taken away her freedom, her friends... Did she really want to let them have her identity?
Aw, screw it. What difference did it make? It was just a dumb name. It didn’t mean anything.
“I’m Princess Aurora,” she said, albeit through gritted teeth.
He smirked. “That’s funny. And all this time I thought I was talking to Rainbow Dash.”
“I—But—How did you—?!”
“Calm yourself, lass. You might have been an unknown when you arrived here a few days back, but word travels fast. Especially when you go around terrorizing the domestic servants.”
Her ears flattened against her head. “Oh. You, uh, heard about that?”
“But of course! Just between you, me, and the statue here, I’m sure they probably had it coming. They can be a tad... enthusiastic... at times,” he said, smiling wistfully. “Tell me, how d’you like Canterlot so far?”
Rainbow cast her eyes downward and kicked at a rock. “It sucks.”
“How eloquent! Care to elaborate?”
“I can’t stand being cooped up in this place. I wanna be up there!”
She pointed up at the sky, which had finally shed its golden cashmere for the violet cloak of dusk.
“That’s where I’m supposed to be! Not stuck in some dumb castle all day! I think they gave me a room with a view just to torture me. And besides,” she added with a sneer, just to emphasize this last point was particularly offensive, “nopony around here knows how to make a daisyburger and hayfries!”
The caretaker roared with laughter. “Well, I gather you didn’t come for the buffet!”
Rainbow gave a pert ‘hmph!’ and plopped back down on the ground, leaning against the base of the statue. “Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, buddy.”
“Don’t despair. I’ve a feeling things will start looking up soon enough. But take a grain of wisdom from an old stallion: any four walls can serve as a prison, but it isn’t until we open our minds and our hearts that we are truly free.”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Keep your eyes on the horizon.”
Then the caretaker picked up his watering can and started back toward the castle. He gave her a sly wink as he strolled past, still with that same damn song on his breath. Rainbow listened as his voice faded into the distance.
Once he was out of earshot, she turned her eyes back to the sky.
Luna had worked her magic over the heavens, laying the sun to bed and bringing out the moon, though it lurked unseen beyond the mountain. A few stars were out, shining in the purple deep amid faint gray brushstroke clouds.
Man, what she would give to be up there right now.
Just for a month or two, she reaffirmed. Just for a month or two.
As she gazed into the west, she saw something strange—a beacon of light rapidly descending toward Canterlot. Rainbow leapt to her hooves, her heart pounding as she squinted through the encroaching darkness. That shock of color, that flicker of white—
Celestia was here.
Celestia was tired.
She persevered against the headwinds, against the soreness in her wings and the searing pain blistering behind her eyes. The whole of Canterlot stretched out beneath her, gaining in her field of vision as she swooped down over the city.
Her eyes fixated on a high tower window. Her window. After the trials of last several weeks, she was looking forward to some peace and solitude, but a yellow glow alerted her to the presence of somepony inside.
Celestia landed on the ledge. From beyond the glass, she heard the scratching of a quill against parchment. She peered into the study and saw Luna sitting at the desk, scribbling in a book and occasionally clacking away on that confounded abacus of hers. The sight made Celestia smile, though she had to roll her eyes a little.
She tapped on the window.
Luna heard the noise and looked up, a grin splaying across her face. She sprang to her hooves and magically undid the latch.
A blast of hot air hit Celestia in the face when Luna threw open the window, tousling her perfect mane. She couldn’t have cared less. In a thousand and some odd years, she had never been so happy to be home.
“Isn’t it a little peculiar to be up doing paperwork at nine o’clock in the evening, sister?” Celestia deadpanned, stepping daintily into the room.
Luna snorted as she closed and locked the window. “Gee, I dunno, Tia. Isn’t it a little peculiar to be sneaking into your own castle at all hours of the night?”
The sarcastic jabs were quickly forgotten. Luna was at her sister’s side to welcome her with an affectionate nuzzle—a gesture Celestia lovingly returned.
“I’ve missed you, Tia.”
“Oh, Luna. I’ve missed you too.”
Just then, a wave of dizziness overcame Celestia. She broke away and staggered to the hearth, all but collapsing onto the pillow which lay by the fireside.
Luna rushed over, looking concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” said Celestia with an obvious wince. “Just a little tired. That’s all.”
“You look like you’re in pain.”
“I’m a goddess, Luna. I’m supposed to be above pain.”
“Yeah, you’re supposed to be above the vanilla cloud cakes they bake down in the kitchens, too, but I’ve seen you put a few of those away. Now tell me how you really feel.”
Celestia grimaced and rubbed her head. “Like somepony took a fireplace poker to my brain.”
“Should I send for a doctor?”
“No. That won’t be necessary,” Celestia said quickly. “But, ah... I wouldn’t refuse a slice of cloud cake, since you mentioned it.”
The younger princess nodded, but before she could go, Celestia laid a gentle hoof upon on her shoulder. When Luna looked down, her sister’s weariness was replaced by an expression of the utmost concentration and resolve.
“Tuesday,” said Celestia.
“Tuesday morning. Somewhere in Manehattan. That’s all I was able to discover.”
“Have you... Have you notified the appropriate intelligence agencies? Local authorities?”
“That, dear sister, I leave in your good hooves.”
Luna sucked in a sharp breath, feeling the mantle of responsibility on her shoulders. The sisters shared a knowing look. They both knew what was at stake.
“I did stop by the Academy. I notified Sage. He should already be on the way.”
“You... want to start planning the operation tonight? Tia, you’re exhausted! You need to rest!”
“Sage needs to know. There’s nopony more qualified to spearhead this thing than him. And I will not rest as long as my people’s lives are in jeopardy.” Celestia’s firm voice carried all the weight of her crown and then some.
“Rainbow Dash deserves the opportunity to meet him, besides. Speaking of which, how is she?”
Luna stared over her sister’s shoulder. “Maybe... you should ask her yourself, sister.”
Now it was Celestia’s turn to suck in a sharp breath. There in the doorway stood Rainbow Dash, leaning against a column, regarding them with a cool expression.
Celestia forced a smile, even though the sight of Rainbow standing there conjured a renewed despair deep down in her soul. She knew this moment would come. She had spent the last ten days trying to put the inevitability of it out of her mind. And now that the reunion was finally upon her, she felt her heart ache, for she knew the scant ten foot distance that separated her from her daughter might just as well have stretched to the moon and back again.
She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Several uncomfortable seconds passed between them in silence. Then—
“I hope my tardiness hasn’t been cause for delay.”
They looked to the door. There, standing behind Rainbow Dash, was an elderly unicorn. With a violet coat, a snow-white beard, and intelligent silver eyes.
“Your Highness. Your Highness,” he said, bowing to Celestia and Luna each in turn.
Rainbow gaped at him. “You!”
With a twinkle in his eye, he turned to Rainbow and bowed again. “Your Highness.”
Noticing her sister at an uncharacteristic loss for words, Luna spoke up. “Rainbow Dash, this is Sage Whitehoof, Headmaster of Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. He’ll be the one overseeing your tutelage here in Canterlot.”
“Tutelage. Um, schooling in the art of magic.”
Rainbow blanched. “School?!”
The old stallion stepped forward. “Pardon me, Princesses, but if I may interject... I am honored to know you deem me worthy of such a noble charge, and I shan’t refuse it if that is your decree. Yet I can think of another purple unicorn who might be better suited to the task.”
“Who—” Celestia began, but then the crux of it dawned on her, and she quickly stopped herself.
She turned the idea over in her head. A familiar face might be more beneficial to her education, she rationalized. And still another thought resounded in the aching hollows of her heart:
It would make her happy.
“Do it,” said Celestia.
“I’ll send the letter first thing upon the morrow,” said Sage with another dip of his head.
Celestia nodded. “Thank you.”
Her eyes wandered back to Rainbow. She bit her lip.
“Sage... I know I requested your presence tonight to deal with a matter of some importance, but I neglected to realize how tired the last week has made me. If you would be so kind as to return tomorrow morning at one o’clock, we can conduct our business then.”
“Certainly. Good evening, Your Majesties.” With three final bows, he whirled and left the room.
Once he had departed and the door clicked shut, Celestia took a deep breath. Her hooves were trembling—Elements, when was the last time anything affected her like this? She’d been a pillar of strength for a millennium, and here she was, shaking like a leaf!
Her fears, her doubts, her apprehensions—She swallowed them all like the bitter pills they were. Forcing an even expression, she looked back at her daughter again.
“Aurora, would you like to... sit with me next to the fire for a while?”
Rainbow raised her brow, her face unreadable. And Celestia’s eyes betrayed a glimmer of hope. Maybe, she thought—Maybe, she would say yes. Maybe, she would—
“Nah, I’m feeling a little tired. Gotta get some sleep, conserve my energy. Since there’s so much to do around here and all.”
Rainbow took off down the hall, not even bothering to close the door behind her. Just like that, she was gone. Again. And Celestia was left to wallow in the sting.
She felt Luna’s eyes on her. Luna’s sympathetic eyes.
Luna’s pitying eyes.
“Leave me now, sister,” Celestia spoke past the lump in her throat. “I need to rest.”
There was a pause.
“Al... Alright, Tia.”
Another pause. She knew Luna was lingering out of love and concern. To make sure everything was okay. That she would be alright. Even though her head was pounding and her heart felt like it was clenched in the jaws of vise.
“Would... Would you still like some vanilla cloud cake?” Luna asked.
“...Maybe just a slice.”
Luna nodded and took her leave. And Celestia was all alone.
There was a flame twisting away in the fireplace. Not a blaze, but a withering flame, ringed with ashes and soft-glowing embers, flickering dangerously in the chimney draft. And no matter how much she yearned for something spirited and warm, there just wasn’t enough kindling there for anything meaningful to grow.
Celestia sighed. She wondered how long she could keep it burning.
Elsewhere, in quaint old Ponyville, one little pony tossed and turned, tossed and turned, kicked at her covers and tossed and turned. Horrors darted before her eyes. Horrors upon horrors upon horrors upon horrors upon...
Running. Running in the dark. Dark shapes. Dark shapes all around.
She writhed and she trembled and she tossed and she turned...
In an ancient castle, surrounded by ruins. Something glowing on the floor. A perfect gemstone. Her friendship. The jewel of her friendship. She reached out to touch it. It floated up into the air. Started spinning. A flash of light.
The jewel was gone. In its place, a lifeless stone sphere. She looked at it. And she cried.
The tears pushed past tight-squeezed eyelids and ran down her cheeks.
Running. Dark shapes. Dark shapes all around. Trapped. Nowhere to run. She tried to anyway. They caught her. They wouldn’t let her go. She writhed and she trembled...
...and she tossed and she turned...
A glint of silver in the dark. Pain. Horrible, wrenching pain. Coldness. Coldness pouring from her chest into her limbs, filling her veins with ice. Darkness. Darkness pressing in, seeping into her vision, turning the whole world black.
Yet when she looked down, it wasn’t her lying there, motionless, in a pool of red.
...horrors upon horrors upon horrors upon horrors upon...
Those jet black wings. That swirling hair. Nightmare Moon, smirking at her from up on the dais, shedding stars from her indigo mane and filling the room with wicked laughter. She stomped her hoof and the Elements shattered into a thousand pieces.
The night. Would last. Forever.
She scraped her hoof and charged. But when she looked up, searching for those twin icicles in the everywhere-dark, she didn’t see teal-blue dragon eyes looking back at her.
She saw purple ones.
Toss and turn. Toss and turn. Scream for your life and toss and turn.
An earthquake. Black fire. A gash in the sky that split the horizon ‘twain. Four lights shining in the darkness. Then five. Then six. Then they all went out.
Dark shapes. Dark shapes, galloping all around her. A glint of silver. A pool of red. And lying in the pool, covered in the red, was—
...and then she woke up, gasping for breath, drenched with sweat, blinking in the morning light through pinpoint-pupils. Clutching her blanket like it was the only thing in the world that would protect her, because she had never felt more scared in her life.
“A dream,” she choked out. “Just... a dream.”
She hugged herself and slowly rocked back and forth, allowing herself to fall into a stupor until the logical sectors of her brain rebooted.
This was one ghostie she couldn’t bring herself to giggle at. She doubted she ever would.
“TWILIGHT! ARE YOU AWAKE YET?” Spike called up from the ground floor of the library.
“Yes, Spike!” she shouted back immediately out of habit. She cursed herself and shut her eyes, praying he wouldn’t catch the obvious quiver in her voice.
He didn’t. “THERE’S A LETTER FROM CANTERLOT FOR YOU! IT LOOKS IMPORTANT!”
Twilight groaned and rubbed her temples. Probably a note from Princess Celestia chastising her for her lack off friendship reports. Nightmare upon nightmare. What a way to start the morning.
“I’ll be right down!” she yelled. Her voice was a little more even this time.
She dragged herself out of bed, took a minute to brush her hair and teeth, and then descended the stair to the library proper. The scent of eggs and coffee wafted in from the kitchen and made her mouth water. Spike was cooking breakfast.
“The letter’s on the desk!” the young dragon shouted over the hot sizzle of the frying pan.
Twilight’s stomach growled, but her appetite could wait until after she handled business. Blinking through the last bleary remnants of sleep, she crossed the room to where the missive lay upon her writing desk—
—and stopped dead in her tracks.
The parchment didn’t bear Celestia’s trademark red-and-gold seal. Instead, staring back at her, a violet disc stamped with three colored spheres.
The Emblem of the Academy.
She tore into the thing, scarcely able to contain her excitement. She read every word. And when her eyes reached the bottom of the page, she read it again.
Then at last, she set the letter back down.
She heard Spike humming to himself in the kitchen, accompanied by the clink of pots and pans and the gush of water from the tap. Quietly, so as not to alert him, she went to the front door and slipped outside. Rounding the base of the massive oak, she stood upon a grassy rise, and with the smallest of frowns, gazed off into the east.
Lost in her thoughts, Twilight Sparkle looked on Canterlot, faraway in the distance.